French Canadian Tourtière, Our Family Tradition

          French Canadian Meat Pie, or “tourtière ” is a traditional dish passed down in my family, served on Christmas Eve and other special occasion. 

The story of my grandparents’ families is shared with hundreds of thousands who immigrated from French Quebec to work in the mills and farms in New England in the decades around 1900. Before that, our ancestors arrived in the 1600s from Brittany, bringing along to Quebec many of the cuisine traditions from there.

My grandmother, Dolora Martel, “Mémé,”was only four when she arrived. Alfred LaFlamme, my grandfather, “Pépé,” was born in this country, son of an immigrant day laborer. They raised 10 children and eventually settled in the Brattleboro area, where I probably have more cousins than I can count.

Meme and Pepe
Mémé & Pépé –Alfred LaFlamme and his wife Dolora Martel, in 1916. Originally from St. Francois, Ile d’Orleans, Quebec, my ancestors brought their family food histories and stories with them and passed them on to us when they arrived. They raised 10 children and eventually settled in the Brattleboro, Vt., area.

Food stories

They brought their food stories with them, a cuisine that evolved from French roots, modified by the climate of Quebec and New England: lots of pork, wild game, hearty stews and soups, corn in every form, yeast breads, pickles, apple and berry everything, custards, fruit galettes and sweet maple pies. Every scrap of food they hunted, raised, or gathered was used, nothing wasted.

Warm spices in a cold land

Spices in sweet and savory dishes included cinnamon, cloves, ginger, allspice, and nutmeg, liberally used, along with maple and molasses. Meals were slow-cooked, hearty, full of carbohydrates and fat. It fed large families and hard workers who burned every calorie. What wasn’t served up fresh was cured, salted, canned, dried, smoked, and pickled to preserve for the rest of the year.

Of course, one of the reasons many of these dishes survive is because they are pure comfort food and taste really good! I learned to cook them the way my mother did, by watching someone else. Often, there was no written recipe, just a technique, so the passing on of this information was an intimate experience that created memories as well as skill.

The holidays

Many of the special dishes were tied to Catholic religious holidays. Bountiful Christmas Eve feasts are what those food memories are made of, and two recipes in particular stand out: a rich, savory meat pie called “tourtière,” and the beautifully elaborate “Bûche de Noël” a rolled sponge cake, sprinkled with brandy, and decorated as a Yule log with chocolate frosting, meringue “mushrooms,” piped holly leaves, and cinnamon candy berries, the favorite of the children in the house. There was always a big spread, midnight mass, and tired children!

I make both of these dishes most years, but, of course, I have added my own little twists to the original. My mother made the Bûche de Noël filled with homemade blackberry jam, and sometimes I still do because I love blackberries But I like it filled with whipped cream, too, and I always frost mine with whipped chocolate ganache.

The flexible tourtière

The tourtière was made with ground meat, pork or pork and beef, with potatoes and cracker crumbs, baked in a flaky lard pastry. It was served dripping with brown gravy. Every family had their own version and spice mix, and sometimes more than one – our larger family has three or four, including one with cheddar cheese on top!

The preparation of the meat pie is a bit peculiar; you boil the meat for nearly an hour! This changes the texture and extracts all the fat, allowing you to leave only what you want in the final dish. The ground pork included less important pieces of the pig, another way to make use of all scraps, even for holiday food. The dish was sometimes made with a meat-and-cracker filling, no vegetables.

Everyone has a recipe

You can use any type of ground meat, including turkey and chicken, just don’t mention it to one of the old guard! I created a version using soy sausage and a gluten-free crust, topped off with wild mushroom gravy that pleases everyone from meat eaters to vegetarians. My niece Keri loves this one!

But, make no mistake, even with the modifications, it is still Mémé’s tourtiere!

Family food tells the bigger family history, and offers a sense of connection with the generations. Along the way, the recipes evolve, the essence of the original enhanced to reflect the time we live in.

Many possibilities, even for the vegetarian in the family

This is one of the versions I make for my family; I have substituted local ground turkey and sausage for the usual beef and pork, but if you eat red meat, you may use it here, or substitute a soy sausage; there are many options for locally raised, sustainable meats where we live. Of course, when my grandmother made a French Canadian meat pie, she used the most sustainable meat possible, that which was raised on her own farm and fed with grain they grew.

I’ve also made it with ground soy protein and it tastes pretty much the same! In fact, one meat-eater grabbing seconds didn’t realize he had served himself from my vegetarian pie, and I didn’t tell! 

This is Mémé’s “good times” version because it uses potatoes rather than just crackers.

This makes two bountiful pies, and they freeze well.

Mémé’s Good Times Tourtière

  • One large white onion, diced
  • 2 ribs celery, minced
  • 1 tbsp. duck fat or olive oil
  • 2 pounds ground Vermont or other local turkey
  • 1 ½ pounds fresh local pork sausage, removed from casings
  • 1 tbsp. poultry seasoning
  • 1 tsp. dried sage, or 2 tbsp. fresh, minced
  • 1 tsp. each ground cinnamon and ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 tsp. hot Hungarian paprika (my addition!)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 large bay leaf
  • Chicken stock or water to almost cover, about two cups
  • One sleeve Ritz or butter crackers smashed into crumbs
  • 2 cups diced potatoes, partially cooked but still a bit firm
  • 2 double pie crust recipes (total four crusts)
  • Egg wash

Sauté the onion and celery in the duck fat in a large pan. Add the ground turkey, sausage, spices, and enough stock to just cover with bits poking their heads up. You can also use just plain water here, that’s what my grandmother used, but I think the stock adds a little more flavor.

This is the strange part, but necessary, the meat must be boiled: bring to a boil, cover, reduce, and slow cook on low heat, covered, about an hour, stirring now and then. (Note: if using soy alternative, only boil for about 15 minutes or so). The house will smell like Christmas Eve!

Remove the lid, stir, and remove some of the fat and liquid that has accumulated. Add crackers and potatoes. Stir well, and spoon back a little of the liquid if need be. The mixture should be very soft and moist, but with no visible pools of liquid.

Cool the mixture. When cool, pour into two prepared bottom crusts and make smooth. Add the top crusts, and always a little pastry decoration. This is, after all, holiday food, so it should look as pretty as it tastes. I like to decorate with little leaves made from the pastry trimmings.

Brush all with an egg wash made of an exquisite organic egg and a little cold water and bake at 350 degrees for about 45 to 50 minutes. It should be golden brown! Check when the house starts to smell really good. It will let you know.

Let set at least 20 minutes before cutting, a half hour is better. Traditionally, this was served with a brown gravy, but I like it much better with a mushroom gravy on the side.

Wild Mushroom Gravy

            Bring two cups of water to a boil and add a handful of dried porcini or other dried mushrooms. (I use wild maitake mushroms I dehydrate in my oven, but you can use any dried variety). Set aside for a half hour. Drain, reserving the liquid, and chop up the rehydrated mushrooms.

            Sauté 10 ounces of fresh mushrooms, whatever you like, in a tablespoon of butter with a splash of olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste, and sprinkle in a little thyme. Add the rehydrated mushrooms, a little more butter, and a quarter cup of all-purpose flour. Mix well and slowly add the reserved liquid (the very bottom of the bowl may contain grit so pour really slowly at the end). Reduce the heat and simmer for a few minutes until thick.

            Note: Check the dried mushroom package; many are being imported from China and are priced cheap. Because of obvious issues of quality control, you don’t want these! 

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